FOR the first time in Australian marine research, SEA LIFE Mooloolaba has performed an artificial insemination experiment on a leopard shark, a procedure that could help save the critically endangered Australian grey nurse shark.

The experiment involved taking sperm from a male leopard shark at the SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium and transporting the live sample to SEA LIFE Mooloolaba, where a female leopard shark was artificially inseminated.

While the AI is not essential for the survival of leopard sharks, it is hoped the insemination attempt will help researchers learn about the reproductive behaviours of Australian shark species, while using the technology to save wild populations of the grey nurse shark.

SEA LIFE Mooloolaba's displays curator Aaron Sprowl said the number of wild grey nurse sharks is thought be to just 1,500.

"Grey nurse sharks are not prolific breeders, in that they only birth two pups every two to three years in the wild,” he said.

"They're bred very poorly in an aquarium, so we hope this research project with the leopard shark will help us to eventually breed grey nurse sharks at SEA LIFE Mooloolaba, with the goal of releasing them into the wild to boost their dwindling numbers.”

The AI process involved bringing the female leopard shark to the water's surface and gently turning her over - which has a relaxing effect on the animal - followed by injecting the sperm and rolling her back over.

Researchers will know if the experiment has been successful if any eggs laid by the shark in the next few months grow, and then hatch 60 days later.

The pup or pups will then be genetically tested to ensure that they are a result of the AI, rather than self-fertilisation that leopard sharks are sometimes capable of.

Mr Sprowl said AI of sharks had many advantages, such as decreased risk of injury from breeding activities, increased breeding and reproductive success, and the ability to manage genetic diversity sustainably in the aquarium population.



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